It can be easy to feel overwhelmed and powerless in the face of today’s various crises. But the people behind the Veterans Community Project (VCP) didn’t let those feelings keep them from helping fellow soldiers in need. From their example, we can find motivation and a solid model for how to help the people around us as well.
The VCP was started in Kansas City, MO by four veterans who saw the hardships faced by so many of our country’s former soldiers and decided to do something about it.
As Bryan Meyer, CEO of the non-profit, described it: “Veteran homelessness is written off as a federal issue, or a problem that’s outside the scope of a local community, but it’s really not . . . This project is all about not waiting for somebody else to fix the problem. It’s about bringing people together to address the issue.”
To that end, they worked with the people of Kansas City to build temporary housing that consists of 49 tiny homes, a 5,000-square-foot community center, and focuses on helping veterans of all backgrounds successfully assimilate into life after the military. The average stay is 275 days before the veterans have made enough progress to get a permanent residence and the skills necessary to sustain it.
They’ll break ground this summer on a new community in Colorado with plans to expand into Cincinnati, St. Louis, and Orlando in the near future.
By examining the steps they’ve taken to reach this point, we can gain a better understanding of how those same philosophies can help us actively and effectively be Christ’s hands and feet to the world around us.
Three principles, in particular, stand out.
Don’t assume you understand the problem
The first lesson we can learn from Meyer and the others is that when they decided to tackle the problem of homelessness among veterans in their city, they started by going out and engaging with those veterans. They didn’t simply assume that they understood what the hurting soldiers needed or that generic answers would be good enough. Rather, they took the time to truly understand the problems before trying to solve them. Their success speaks to the wisdom of that strategy.
As the body of Christ, we must do the same rather than simply assuming that we know the best way to help those around us. This starts with praying that the Lord would give us understanding and discernment as we speak to those we meet. But it continues with the humility to accept that the hurting probably have a better idea than we do of what they need in most cases.
Yes, God can guide us to the truth of a situation and help us discern the best path forward. However, taking the time to try and understand the problem from the perspective of those we’re trying to assist can go a long way toward avoiding many of the pitfalls that so often plague our response to areas of need.
It will also help to ensure that we associate real faces with that need, granting us the empathy to remember that, ultimately, we’re here to help people rather than just solve problems.
Look for chances to partner with others
The second piece of wisdom we can take from VCP is to remember that we are seldom going to be the only ones trying to address a particular area of need.
While Meyer was correct in asserting that veteran homelessness is not a problem that should simply be left to the government to solve, local VA offices are still working hard to provide services and aid to our former soldiers. As such, VCP works hard “to establish that relationship [with the local VA], because our entire intent is to kind of fill gaps in some of the services out there. We don’t want to compete with anybody. We don’t want to duplicate what the VA is doing.”
In the same way, we are seldom going to be the only ones God enlists to address a particular problem. Our small piece of his plan may be distinct and specific, but we can accomplish so much more for the kingdom if we prayerfully seek out others who are called to similar work.
Knowing what’s already being done can help us better refine our unique calling and equip us with the knowledge needed to understand how we can make the greatest impact. It can also help us find like-minded people to support and lean on when that work gets difficult, as it almost always does eventually.
That support can be the difference between success and failure.
Don’t lose sight of the bigger picture
The third lesson to take from VCP is to take the understanding gained from those conversations and create practical solutions that address the whole problem.
For example, as veteran Jason Kander described, a tiny home “replicates base housing. It creates the environment a lot of folks were in when they were really stable.” In addition, “with the tiny home, you can do a perimeter check. It makes them feel safe, and it makes them feel comfortable.”
In most settings, homelessness is addressed through large shelters and group housing. For many veterans, though, such a setting only adds to their stress and pain.
By comparison, the sense of security and comfort offered by the tiny houses creates an atmosphere in which the mentoring, case management, counseling, and other services VCP offers to veterans can be most effective. And by partnering with the local VA, they can make sure that their focus is on the areas of greatest need.
When trying to address the issues to which the Lord has called us, it’s vital to focus on developing solutions that take into account the whole of the problem. Focusing on one aspect or a single issue rather than the bigger picture can mean creating a new issue for every one that we solve. At the same time, replicating what others are already doing can lead to needless competition and a diminished impact.
Far too many well-intentioned plans to help those in need have failed to fulfill their potential because they did not take into account the entire scope of what needed to be done as well as what efforts were already being made to combat similar problems. It doesn’t have to be that way, though.
Perfection isn’t a prerequisite for progress
I’m sure if the folks at the Veterans Community Project could go back to the beginning, there are things they’d do differently. After all, they’re just fallen humans trying to help other fallen humans.
But the good news is that perfection isn’t a prerequisite for progress.
There will always be things we could have done better or areas for improvement. But by seeking understanding from those we’re called to help, looking for ways to partner with others in that work, and keeping our focus on practical solutions to the whole problem, we can reduce the chances of such mistakes.
And the best news of all is we serve a God who can help us accomplish all three. We just have to be humble and selfless enough to ask.
Ryan Denison is the Senior Fellow for Theology at Denison Forum, where he contributes writing and research to many of the ministry’s productions. He is in the final stages of earning his PhD in church history at BH Carroll Theological Institute after having earned his MDiv at Truett Seminary. Ryan has also taught at BH Carroll and Dallas Baptist University. He and his wife, Candice, live in East Texas and have two children.